East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The things they carried


Just when you thought things could not get any crazier, I got the news that an Alaska school board removed five “controversial” books from district classrooms. And now I still remember when Tarzan books were removed from libraries for promoting running naked in the jungle and living together outside of wedlock.

But in this case, the books are not pulp adventures, as the “controversial” titles are

  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller
  • “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

And it is weird, because I got the news just as I was preparing a post about The Things They Carried for my Italian blog.

The Things They Carried was published in 1990 and I first read the Italian translation when I was serving in the Air Farce. A guy in fatigues in the middle of a rice paddy reading a book about guys in fatigues in the middle of rice paddies. It does not get more meta than that, although no one was shooting at us, and if we were stranded between rice paddies, the only menace was mosquitoes.

Built as a series of interconnected short stories, the book is a fictionalized autobiography, relating Tim O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam war. O’Brien also wrote If I die in the combat zone, box me up and ship me home and Going After Cacciato – two highly recommended books. But I prefer The Things They Carried. The writing is incredibly evocative, and the story that opens the book and gives it its title is an extraordinary example of how you can build plot and characters based on simple lists of items.

Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.

Tim O’Brien

But there’s also other stories in there, and indeed, to this day I consider Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong one of the most chilling horror stories I ever read – they also made a movie of it, in 1998, starring Kiefer Sutherland – maybe we’ll talk about that.
But the story, the story is incredible.

And there is drama, in the book, and comedy … really laugh-out-loud comedy, in the midst of the madness … and it0s very intimate and personal, and also so sharp and smart everybody cannot but feel it.

And now the kids won’t be able to read this book anymore – a book for which a SparkNotes volume was published.
because it is not just masterfully written, and it does not just deal with a piece of 20th century history, but because it0s a book that deals with morality, and duty, and fear in the face of madness.

Just when you thought it could not get any crazier than this, you see people out there working to make it crazier.
They removed it because in contains sex scenes.
Go read The Things They Carried – I can’t promise it will be a pleasant journey, but it will be a healthy experience.
We can learn a lot from war stories.
Read it.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “The things they carried

  1. It’s amazing the various flavors of fascists this situation has brought to the surface.


  2. In America it’s always the sexy stuff that will get you in trouble. Other things will too but it’s idea that “kids” will read about sex that makes the censor minded folks jump into action. These are usually the same folks who are against providing sex education in schools. Idiots.


  3. The exact moment when a book is discarded from a reading list, putted in a banned books list (Yes, I’m watching you Opus Dei) or burned up in a modern version of the auto-da-fè, should been the exact moment where as many people possible should begin to feeling the urge to put that book in their reading list.
    I, personally, give particular attention to children and young readers literature in this case like Sherman Alexie, Mark Haddon and, god know why, Captain Underpants.


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